Small Wonder, Large Appreciation

For Friday shoppers who want to jump to the punchline and avoid the punch, I give you the Nikon winners of the 2014 MicroPhotography competition that spawned this thread today. 

I’ve been devoting some thought lately to my idiosyncrasies–those unique and perhaps peculiar ways of seeing, thinking and behaving particular to only me.

Some of them I’m sure came with the package at Day One. Some of each of us consists of molecular hard-wired genetic instructions among which not all are as either-or as the dice-toss for brown eyes or blue. Most of our behavioral genetics come with a wide tolerance for over-riding and subverting in directions that come more from nurture than nature.

The infant ship comes incompletely equipped early on, and by choice and by chance, we add sails and navigation equipment. The maps are both our own and edited by circumstance, serendipity, parenting, early friendships and society.

It’s pointless to try to tweeze out which of our good traits or bad can be blamed on the weird great-great grandparent that nobody in the family line talks about in public. In the end, those unique features belong to us, regardless of how they became part of our who-ness. We wear them, deny them or celebrate them, for better or for worse, for a lifetime.

One of these personal quirks that goes back close to my beginning is a fascination with the very small. I have some specific early memories I’ve written about elsewhere that in my mind support the notion that I’ve always held fantasies about seeing deeper, farther or with expanded clarity since way back. (These imaginings and yearnings were only made stronger with the longing to have x-ray vision like Superman. )

My photographic compulsion and zeal since my early twenties is part of this “lens oriented” need to see things–real concrete physical things and later on, conceptual things as well–with new eyes as often as possible. If we stare too long at the same object with the same eyes, they disappear.

Perhaps the greatest elaboration of this need to see real objects in new ways was in grad school, where I  got seriously sidetracked from my thesis study by my fascination with pond water. Yes, pond water. I told you I admitted to some serious behavioral outliers.

And, dear diary, I know I can’t make you fully understand why, but it seemed–and still seems–that these countless hours peering down the tube of a phase contrast oil-immersion microscope at rotifers, diatoms, colonial protozoa and objects that defied identification was one of the most beneficial educational periods of my adult life.

The intricacies, the beauties, the complexitiesof design and fit, of function and microscopic anatomy of appendages, of synchronized beating cilia, of beating hearts, pulsing jaws, flapping flagella, and tiny still nerve plexuses that hinted of thinking brains–all of this to me was a marvelous revelation of the nature of the nature that exists around each of us every day of our lives. And of this beauty, these marvels, this wonder, we are most all mostly unaware, and to what does not exist for us, we are indifferent.

And so I saw them once, thankfully, on my own time, because I was compelled to do so for my own very peculiar vision and world-understanding. I have never been unaware or indifferent or unappreciative for these small wonders ever since. I keep looking for them, only without the microscope, though so much can still be held in our hands that points us toward greater realities.

As I have said so often before, if we hold our eyes just right and have hearts and minds ready to know, there is nothing ordinary.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. …a good read. Straying a bit, I ran across a quote by a 19th century author James Allen (from The Painters Keys) that you might like…”A man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life.”

  2. I started on an MS in Biology with a project involving Paramecium. I was unable to get them to reproduce. I was in grad school to kill time while my husband was serving in Korea (in 1970, not 1950’s) so I dropped out after two quarters. I love diatoms, et. al., and have always intended to read up in how cell size can vary so dramatically between tiny and large organisms. Their structure is equivalently complex, but their size is so small!

  3. Fred- Stopping by to say hello. (Thought of you recently, as we are this weekend traveling down to see Washington & Lee with our son, who’s graduating H.S. this June.) Amazing small world photos.

    It’s an extraordinary world we live in. And so much beauty in seeing things anew. We need only train (and allow) our eyes and hearts to see, yes: deep, far, and with expanded clarity. Lovely piece.

    Be well. 🙂